The demise of the French national side has been bothering me quite a bit recently. Not because I have any particular affinity for Les Bleus, but because a French side in full-flow is something truly amazing to watch.
It seems long gone are the days of flowing French rugby that saw a laissez-faire attitude resulting in them running the ball from deep without a care for the potential implications. Yes at times it left the men in blue a little red faced, but with a Gallic shrug they simply brushed it off and tried again.
Now unfortunately it seems the current French side is constricted by the burdens of modern commercialism that has tamed their ambition and in reality, much of what made them, well…French.
The only nonchalant attitude we see now out of the French camp is when one of their eccentric head coaches makes some ‘unusual’ decisions over his players. Whether it be dropping in-form fly-halves or playing scrum-halves out of position, the only excitement seems to come from which bizarre decision will be made next.
The issue however is that given the playeing personnel available to Head Coach Phillipe Saint-André, Les Bleus have the potential to be world beaters. They proved this during the World Cup in 2011 when despite obvious struggles they were but one slightly dubious decision away from lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
Many of those who got them there last time around will still be available at the World Cup in 2015, and of those no longer available, many have been replaced by players of an even higher calibre. It seems however that whilst Saint-André remains at the helm, Les Bleus will continue to struggle.
His erratic selection decisions and insistence on stifling a backline packed full of talent continues to hinder his sides development in a way that will only be realised once the shackles have been released. We have seen in bursts what the likes of Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana could do for France, but they have never been given a regular opportunity to prove themselves.
The plight of Les Bleus isn’t all Saint-André’s fault of course. The increasing number of foreign imports is no doubt hindering the development of young French players in the Top 14, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon and is certainly not the reason for most of the French squad under-performing given that the majority of them have all enjoyed ample game time for both club and country. This concern is one for the future, not for the present.
For the sake of French rugby, Saint-André now needs to consistently select his best side and allow them to play together in a way that best suits their skills. For me that means reverting back to the classic French style of play and allowing his backs to sling the ball around and play with the kind of freedom that will allow them to exploit their natural talents.
Obviously for this ploy to work, the French pack must face up and start scrapping for every ball going and doing the hard and dirty stuff they have become somewhat accustomed to in recent years. Saint-André needs to give them a serious kick up the a**e and drop those failing to put their bodies on the line for the national shirt. Recently it has become far too common for the French pack to amble around the field looking disinterested without any form of recompense.
For me Saint-André needs to select a starting XV that looks something like the below and allow them to actually play rugby instead of trying to play an attritional game that quite clearly doesn’t come naturally to much of the site;
Dulin, Huget, Fofana, Fickou, Medard, Trinh-Duc, Kockott, Domingo, Kayser, Mas, Pape, Maestri, Ouedraogo, Dusautoir, Chouly
This would leave impact players like Basteraud, Picamoles and Vahaamhina to come off the bench and make an impact should a game be getting bogged down in tight conditions. For me the above side would represent the most exciting backline in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly with the midfield combination of Fickou and Fofana playing outside of a playmaker like Trinh-Duc.
There’s no doubt that such a radical change in the French playing style would cause issues to begin with, however given their struggles in recent years something has to change. A more expansive style of play would also come more naturally to many of these players making for an easier transition.
Whilst you’re unlikely to see me cheering on Les Bleus anytime soon I would still love to see them playing some of the open attacking rugby that used to characterise their play, and I’m sure I would not be along in this wish. Do you think the French need to make a change?